Senator on Thursday disputed an account in The New York Times that top advisers confronted him during his first presidential run with concerns about his ties to a female lobbyist.
“Obviously, I’m very disappointed in the article; it’s not true,” Mr. McCain said at a morning news conference in Toledo, where he was campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination. “At no time have I ever done anything that would betray the public trust or make a decision which in any way would not be in the public interest or would favor anyone or organization.”
Asked if he had ever had a romantic relationship with the woman, Vicki Iseman, Mr. McCain responded, “No.” He described his relationship with Ms. Iseman as that of “friends” and said he last saw her “several months ago” at an event.
Mr. McCain’s wife, Cindy, stood at his side throughout the news conference. “My children and I not only trust my husband, but know that he would never do anything to not only disappoint our family, but disappoint the people of America,” Mrs. McCain said. “He’s a man of great character.”
The couple were responding to an article on Thursday that said Ms. Iseman’s recurring appearances in 1999 at fund-raisers, in Mr. McCain’s office and at campaign events had alarmed some of his top advisers, prompting several to warn him that his association with her could threaten his reputation as a scourge of special interests. The Washington Post also reported on Thursday that members of Mr. McCain’s inner circle of advisers had confronted him directly about his ties to Ms. Iseman.
McCain denies involvement in discussions
Mr. McCain said he had never been involved in such discussions. “I don’t know if it happened at their level,” he said. “It certainly didn’t happen to me.”
At his news conference, Mr. McCain also said he had no knowledge that a top aide had asked Ms. Iseman to keep her distance from the senator and his campaign. John Weaver, a former top McCain strategist and now an informal campaign adviser, had told The Times that he met with the lobbyist, a partner at the firm Alcalde & Fay, at Union Station in Washington in early 1999.
“I don’t know anything about it,” Mr. McCain said. “Since it was in The New York Times, I don’t take it at face value.”
Mr. Weaver declined to comment to The Times on Thursday. He told The Washington Post’s Web site, however, that he had not informed Mr. McCain about the meeting in advance.
He also expanded on his initial description to The Times of the discussion with Ms. Iseman. He had said, without elaborating, that he had warned Ms. Iseman away because of “what she had told people” that had “made its way back” to the McCain campaign.
In a statement to the Web site of The Atlantic Monthly, Mr. Weaver said the comments that concerned him were about “strong ties to John’s committee staff, personal staff and to him.”
Waging war with the newspaper
Later in the day, one of Mr. McCain’s senior advisers directed strong criticism at The Times in what appeared to be a deliberate campaign strategy to wage a war with the newspaper. Mr. McCain is deeply distrusted by conservatives on several issues, not least because of his rapport with the news media, but he could find common ground with them in attacking a newspaper that many conservatives revile as a left-wing publication.
“It was something that you would see in The National Enquirer, not in The New York Times,” said Steve Schmidt, a former counselor to Vice President who is now a top campaign adviser to Mr. McCain.
Mr. Schmidt, in lengthy comments to reporters traveling on Mr. McCain’s campaign plane, said The Times had rushed the article into print so it could beat The New Republic in the publication of an article about the story behind The Times’s investigation of Mr. McCain. The Times article was first published on its Web site on Wednesday night; The New Republic posted its account of what it described as staff conflict over the Times article, on its Web site on Thursday afternoon.
In response to Mr. McCain as well as news media commentary about the timing of the publication of the article, The Times released this statement from Bill Keller, the newspaper’s executive editor:
“On the substance, we think the story speaks for itself. On the timing, our policy is, we publish stories when they are ready. ‘Ready’ means the facts have been nailed down to our satisfaction, the subjects have all been given a full and fair chance to respond, and the reporting has been written up with all the proper context and caveats. This story was no exception. It was a long time in the works. It reached my desk late Tuesday afternoon. After a final edit and a routine check by our lawyers, we published it.”
Damage to his campaign?
Asked at his news conference if he thought the article would be damaging or distracting to his presidential campaign, Mr. McCain replied, “It does distract, and it keeps me from talking about the big issues and the not-so-big issues, and hopefully we can get this thing resolved and behind us and move forward with the campaign.”
While campaigning in Texas on Thursday, Mr. McCain’s rival for the nomination, , said of Mr. McCain, “I take him at his word and would have no further comment on it at all.”
The article drew conservative commentators, many of whom have attacked Mr. McCain throughout the campaign, to join in the criticism of The Times. opened his radio program on Thursday by saying that “if you let the media make you, you are subjecting yourself to the media being able to destroy you.”
“The important question for John McCain today is, Is he going to learn the right lesson from this, and what is the lesson?” Mr. Limbaugh said, according to a transcript posted on his Web site. “The lesson is liberals are to be defeated. You cannot walk across the aisle with them. You cannot reach across the aisle. You cannot welcome their media members on your bus and get all cozy with them and expect eternal love from them.”
David D. Kirkpatrick, Jim Rutenberg and John Sullivan contributed reporting.